Ryan Boudinot has announced that he is not just donating all royalties from Blueprints of the Afterlife—he’s donating all his royalties from all his books for the rest of his career to the Seattle City of Literature budget.  He’s also donating any foreign sales to publishers in Cities of Literature to those cities’ organizations.

At the AWP conference on Saturday, Ryan read part of the UNESCO application for his portion of the Hugo House Writers in Residence reading. The opening placed Seattle geographically within the world and traced the long line of the region’s storytelling traditions, reaching back through centuries.  So beautiful was the excerpt that the next reader, the amazing Karen Finneyfrock, thanked Ryan for making her cry over an application.

You can hear more on March 12 at Town Hall.  It’s going to be awesome.

Buy this book and help Seattle become a UNESCO City of Literature.

Buy this book and help Seattle become a UNESCO City of Literature.

Fiction writer Ryan Boudinot is really, really serious:  Make Seattle a UNESCO City of Literature; “focus relentlessly on doing good.”

At the Seattle Public Library last fall, Boudinot laid out on loose sheets of paper randomly spread about his feet, the why and the how of making Seattle a part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.  In short:  it would give Seattle more opportunities to collaborate both within the city and with the rest of the world.  It would introduce the world’s readers and writers to Seattle’s readers and writers.  It would foster conversation, connection, global exchange.  “We get stuck in our little tunnels,” he said.  Stuck in our own worlds, and as writers, also stuck in the worlds we create—and sometimes stuck in our little corner of the Pacific Northwest.

Putting together the UNESCO application is a collaboration in its own right, involving everyone who reads, writes, and loves books in greater Seattle area.  One of the things that struck Ryan as he went out to spread the word was how rich our literary community is.  He already knew it was rich, but:  There was so much out there that he didn’t even know about, he said—for instance, he’d discovered an independent bookstore that he’d never heard of.  And sitting in that room at the library, seeing just a fraction of people who write, read, and otherwise support literature,  I could see that richness of our literary community, too, in a way I hadn’t really seen it before.

It was because everyone was out of their little tunnels.

All these individuals and organizations willing to connect, willing to bring a little bit of fire.  Just being there, I already felt more connected:  My time spent alone in a room writing had a place out here, in the city, in the world.  That the very reason I write is to forge communication and connection—yet, it can be isolating at times.  But at the library, I realized that we already are a City of Literature, in which every one of us plays an important part.

Most is in place for Seattle to be part of the Creative Cities Network, but we are also lacking some things:  A press that devotes itself to literature in translation, an international literary festival, and a young author’s conference—and more ways for writers to find everything they need to be successful in Seattle.  Many writers still look to New York for representation and/or for publication—and to have that is something that most people, it is safe to say, would not give up.

In one of the email updates a few months after this meeting, Ryan wrote that he fired his New York agent, and told his New York publisher that they should not expect another book from him.  He decided his next book should be 100% Seattle-made, and that in order to make Seattle a thriving literary city, we need to work within it, to expand it with our own breath.

I had to read that email several times to be sure I was reading it correctly.  Then it took me a few days to process it.  A few questions continued to loop through me:  Is he crazy?  How is he going to make a living?  Should I worry about him?  Then:  In his position, would I be brave enough to do that?  I still don’t have an answer to the last question, but I hope that I would be brave enough.

It’s an understatement to say I admire Ryan Boudinot’s drive and sacrifice to connect us to each other and to the rest of the world.  We do have the ability and resources to make Seattle a great literary city, we just need to—well, believe in it.  Invest in it.  Nurture it.  Throw all our irons into the fire.

Here are a few small things you can do to help support Seattle in the quest of becoming a UNESCO-designated City of Literature:

1. Write to the mayor.

Click here to write a letter to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to declare your support for this bid.

2. Buy Blueprints of the Afterlife.

Ryan Boudinot will pledge all his royalties from his latest novel, Blueprints of the Afterlife, towards making Seattle part of the Creative Cities network.

3. Go to the Town Hall meeting, Wednesday March 12, 7:30 pm.

Tonight Ryan Boudinot and guests will present the contents of the City of Literature bid to the public.  To quote: “Let’s come together to celebrate everything that makes Seattle one of the greatest cities in the WORLD for readers and writers.”

The New York Public Library's Rotunda ceiling:  Prometheus bringing the gift of fire

The New York Public Library’s Rotunda ceiling: Prometheus bringing us the gift of fire

The New York Public Library, Rose Reading Room, place 423: This is where I sat and worked on pieces of my novel (and also to wait out the rainstorm) when I last visited the city.  I’m normally not very successful working in public places, and least of all in libraries, but there’s some kind of magic that happens at the Rose Reading Room.  Even though I’m surrounded by hundreds of people, I am able to sink in to my own work incredibly well. Maybe it’s the cathedral-like atmosphere, the commanding quiet.  The sounds heard in this room are functional:  Chairs scraping, someone sneezing, pages turning, the scratching of pens and pencils on paper.  Maybe I can sink in because everyone else is—whether reading, writing, studying, or researching, everyone is thinking in a concentrated way.

The concentrated brain power changes the atmosphere, creates its own weather.  The energy of all of our thoughts collects above us, creating a greater energy than we could on our own.  Looking up, the paintings on the ceiling seem to verify this—the bruised clouds tinged with pink and gold are either gathering to storm or clearing to allow for more blue sky.  In our numbered places at communal tables, we are each a small Prometheus, bringing our bit of fire to the room—a silent offering.

On Tuesday, December 10th at the Rendezvous in Seattle, I’ll be sharing the stage with Evan J. Peterson, Benjamin Schmitt, and whoever else comes in off the street as part of the Old Growth Northwest reading series.

Old Growth NW is serious about local literature.  A nonprofit that fosters creative writing in the Seattle area by offering free workshops to writers, it’s a really great thing for those of us who cannot afford to participate in a workshop otherwise.  Plus, these guys are really nice.

Whether you have something to read or just want to be read to, please come!  Reading starts at 6:30.Image

Artist Jenifer Wofford once was given a large space to work in, but she shared that space with her students.  This meant anyone could come in at any time, see what she was doing.  Jenifer ended up liking doing her work in this atmosphere. “I have a tendency to be lazy,” she said, and having people drift in and out of the room kept her in check.  She said she got more work done than she did in a private studio.

But more that this, she liked the buzz of the activity of people coming in at any time, unannounced.  She liked the discussions that arose around art, the commentary on works-in-progress—that perhaps this combination of elements made her work better than it could’ve been had she been given a private studio to work in.

That made me wonder about the way I do my own work, and if my insistence on isolation is really always the way to work all the time.  What if I worked in a room with others?  How might that interaction with others, or simply the presence of others, affect my work?  Could others’ thoughts, their sounds, their breathing help shape a poem or a story or give sound to an idea? Would it become something I couldn’t have done in isolation?

And finally:  Does writing have to be so lonely?

My short story, “Kite,” has just appeared this week in The Boiler: A Journal of New Literature.  A kite, a girl, a telenovela, UFOs, soccer, and yes, there’s even a cockroach in it.  You can read it here.

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Some of my abandoned stories.

I usually give up on my work.  Most stories I’ve written, there comes a point where the story stumps me and I quit, abandon it.  I put all the drafts, notes, diagrams, and drawings into a folder, shut it and put it on the stack of other abandoned stories.  Then I move on, hoping the next story works out.  For a while, it does work out—writing seems to happen on its own, words know where to go.  The writing feels like reading—I’m writing to find out what happens next—which is my favorite place to be.  Inevitably, I hit that wall again.  And I look at the file folders of abandoned stories and feel a kind of panic.  I begin thinking like someone trying to save her sixth marriage (or so I imagine):  No matter what, I’m not leaving this story.  I don’t care how awful this story is, I will make it work.  And so with that in my head like a mantra, I hammer on, pounding the poor would-be story to death.

The thing I forget in those moments is that I usually do go back to those abandoned stories.  I go back sometimes weeks later, and sometimes years later.  The character’s voice returns to my head, or I find out from either life or from another story what needs to happen, and I return. Sometimes I go back and leave them several times until the stories finally feel right, completed.  This doesn’t happen with every abandoned story—just ones that absolutely need to be told.

This isn’t a failure.  It has taken me years to realize and accept that giving up on a story is the way that I work.  It has to happen that way, or else the stories wouldn’t happen at all.  The problem is that I’ve kept an image in my head of how writers should write—and therefore an ideal way of how I should work.

I first met multi-media artist Jenifer Wofford in Prague when I was at that particular point of defeat.  I had returned from an Artist-in-Residence program in South Bohemia to research and finish a draft of a novel, and by the end of the residency, I felt like I’d failed at what I set out to do.  I had abandoned the novel, and though I’d moved on to work on other stories, I felt the weight of that failed novel in my gut—as well as literally in my bag.  Jenifer helped me drag the monster up all those flights of stairs to my room in the hotel where I was staying, and where she was working.  I apologized, as she took one end and I took the other, for the weight of research, books, paper drafts, and whatever else I thought I needed.

A few weeks ago, I saw Jenifer again, as she came to Seattle to participate in an excellent group show, War Baby/Love Child, at the Wing Luke Museum.  Among many other things, we talked about how we work.  I saw myself in her process, how she tends to work on several pieces at once—that is, beginning one, then leaving it, beginning another.  She leaves behind a lot of open doors.  She said that sometimes when she stops working on a piece and is at work on another, she learns something about the piece she left.  Then she can go back to it—and the first piece becomes something that it wouldn’t have been had she not abandoned it first.  Her work informs her work, setting off a sort of conversation between pieces of art.  For this to happen, it’s essential that the doors be open.

Now I think of my file folders as open doors, colorful doors that open into one another, whose inhabitants share secrets with each other—and occasionally with me.